Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Five Star Hot?

Nowadays it is so easy to get free or inexpensive ebooks, it's almost insane. I currently get emails from BookBub and SweetFreeBooks... Daily emails, each one offering anywhere from two to six free or low cost books. And these are just two of many ebook sites.
Like a food buffet, I was excited about the many choices available, and at first, downloaded anything that sounded interesting. But in grabbing these literary bargains, I found for the most part that as I continued to accumulate title after title, I lost track of what I had. And like those overloaded restuarant buffet plates that often go uneaten, my Kindle is loaded with books that remain unread.
In trying to put myself on a download diet, and consume more mindfully, I now check titles on Goodreads.com in search of decent reviews and ratings before I download new books. Oftentimes, however, my opinions don't align with the ratings given by readers on this site—they tend to very generous. Because I spend a lot of my time writing, I've become somewhat persnickety with what I'll spend time reading. Time painstakingly invested in writing has also led me to become good at pinpointing what I like and don't like about a book. When delving into a new novel, typically I look for these elements: 
  • A story that feels true/believable or at least suspends my belief.
  • No blatant editing, grammatical or typographical issues.
  • Writing that maintains a good flow.
  • A story that makes me come away from it moved, changed or having learned something. 
To give a book 5 stars, for me, it has to have these basic necessities and a whole lot more. It needs to be a piece de la resistance - Literary merit and characters that I need to know more about. There must not be any major flaws. 
I read many genres of books, including love/romance stories, but as of late, I have gravitated towards New Adult stories. This is a genre typically written with protagonists in the 18-25 age bracket, as my book Saving Toby is. In my reading, I have come across some really solid writing, some interesting and well-developed characters and some truly compelling and riveting scenes. However, the books, almost across the board, fell short of the '5-Star' elements I look for. 
First, I was surprised when I found that most of the popular 5-star reads in the New Adult genre are heavily steeped in erotica... Wow, there is a voracious appetite for steamy content!
But, book after book, I was bothered by a blatant lack of well-orchestrated story telling. I'm talking the basic elements of plot, climax and resolution. 
Many of these highly enjoyed books (some boasting thousands of reviews) were successful in pulling the reader in and getting us interested in the characters, but always, somewhere, fell flat in the construction. When a story has faulty construction, it has a direct effect on the believability factor. I might find these reads enjoyable, but they usually hit my review list with a 3-star rating. (I Liked It)
Apparently when it comes to New Adult genre, readers tend to be more generous with their stars. If the characters are compelling, and the sex hot, they seem to overlook many flaws and dole out stars freely. 
This makes me scratch my head. Weren't they disappointed when that disturbing question/problem was never answered? Or the couple resolved their differences too quickly? Or the end dragged on ... forever? 
Okay, I'll stop my bellyaching now and try to take something away from this.

Two important writing/marketing lessons that I have learned from this: 
1. Literary merit or not, people will enjoy what they enjoy.
2. Sexy bad boys are the key to a high ratings. (lol)

What are your requirements of a 5-star read?
I welcome reader comments on this.

Image from http://german.fansshare.com/

Monday, January 13, 2014

A Writer's Love Story

For your entertainment, I present a fictional short story, a contrived version of my writing process during my first novel. Loosely formatted, not professionally edited (please excuse any typos!) 

A Writer's Love Story  Part I

A disgruntled sigh breaks into my sleep. I open one heavy eyelid, then the other. Sitting up, I yank my blanket to my chin as if they will offer me an iota of protection against the guy sitting at the foot of my bed. But the stranger didn't appear to be menacing. Or all that interested in me. Leaning forward, he interlocks his fingers and seemingly contemplates the complexity of his hands. 

I take his rumination as a chance to get a good look at him. He is young—in his early twenties—thin, but well built, with broad muscular shoulders. His tawny colored hair is on the longish side and curls around his ears and midway down the back of his neck. He is dressed casually in a T-shirt and faded blue jeans. The jeans hug his hips and suggest a sense of raw power. 


Waylaid by my curiosity, my fear fades. “What are you doing in here?”
“Everything’s a real mess, and I had no one else to go to,” he mumbles, running a hand through his hair.
Finally he turns to face me, and I gasp. A straight nose, a generous lower lip, and an angular chin covered with a few days length of stubble. Altogether, his appearance screamed untamed in a way that would certainly launch sensual thoughts in many women. The beauty of his physical form was complete with startling, blue-grey eyes. Like burnished flints of light surrounded by thick lashes, they drew me into his depths. Without words, I was brought to awareness. This guy, though young by most standards, bore a lifelong burden — the weight of it was encapsulated in his eyes. 


Though I’d never laid eyes on him before, I know him. I know his thoughts, how it feels to be in his head. I know his whole family’s history — all the resentments he holds, his longings, and his deepest fears. My knowledge of him is complete.Toby Faye is my creation—a character I made up years ago and cast into an unfinished, short story. His story has evolved into my first-ever novel, and Toby, with his exciting, rough exterior, and whose charisma and humor counterbalance his dark side, is my star—my main protagonist. 


“Can I bum a cigarette?” he asks. 


“No,” I reply, now completely at ease with him. “I gave those up and so did you.”
“I’d kill for one right now,” he says and though his words might have alarmed another person, I know they hold no menace. 


“I understand,” I commiserate. “But you gave them up for Claudia. She doesn’t like the way you smell when you smoke.” 


“I know, but it’s not like she’d even let me near her. Not after what you made me do.” 


“I’m sorry,” I mutter, throwing back the covers. I feel his pain but I can’t think straight until I ingest some caffeine. “It was a long night, and I didn’t get much accomplished. I need coffee.” 


He follows me downstairs to the kitchen, his bulky work boots echoing the sound of his gloom. I have a thought of gratitude for my husband who routinely makes a pot of coffee for us each morning before going to work. As I make myself a cup of coffee, I realize Patches, my pug mix, isn’t underfoot pinning for an extra helping of kibble. I remember then, she had to stay overnight at the vet’s office after having her teeth cleaned. 


I sit, stir my coffee and take a sip. 


Toby stands looking at me. “I really need to figure this out. Without Claudia, I feel like a part of me has died.” 


“Yes, I know,” I nod. “Claudia knows that, too. And despite what happened, she knows you are a good person.” 


He pulls out a kitchen chair and sits down heavily. “How can she know? I messed up. I let her down. She’s the only one I ever really cared about, and I screwed it up. Royally.” He broods for a moment, and then fixes me with a weighted, expectant look. “You have to help me make this right.”
I feel a bit guilty—how could I not? After all I was the one who had caused the thunderclap that shook his life off orbit. My job is to create the hell that will force him to face that which scares him most. Like a god, I orchestrated my words, playing out his life’s story. I pushed Toby to his breaking point, effectively forced him to the edge. His strife was the gambit of the story. Now, for better or for worse, he has to make a choice.

A Writer's Love Story Part II


The phone rings. Toby crosses his arms, his impatience with me obvious. He wants answers. In this state, he is a bit intimidating. Still, I hold my ground.
“It’s my husband. I have to answer it,” I tell him.
“What are you doing today?” Brian, my husband of many years, asks.
“Getting some writing done.”
“What a surprise,” his reply is unenthusiastic. “Well, don’t forget to pick up Patches at the vet at 1 p.m.”
I assure him I won’t forget our sweet, furry girl. He tells me he loves me. I say, "I love you" back, and after we hang up, I meander to my office and fire up my computer.
I've always known I couldn’t leave Toby dwindling in the storm I’d created. He was a part of me, and with his pain, I also suffered. I vowed that he would resolve and learn from the life-altering issues I levied upon him. Just as it was my job to rain down on him, it was also my job to figure out how to get him to shelter, and not only regain his footing, but to exceed previous expectations.
There are many ways to go about this, but in doing so, he must also win back Claudia, the only girl he’s ever loved. But how did I play that out when he’d thrown her love away and denied that he’d ever had feelings for her? Once bitten, twice shy. After the scars heal, she’ll be tougher, more focused. What would he have to do to get her to give him a second chance?
As I did last night, I waver back and forth through a series of scenarios, but nothing—nothing—seems right.
Toby moves behind my chair and looks at the screen over my shoulder. He reads what I’ve written and points to a word.
“You’d never hear the word ‘substantiate’ come from my mouth,” he says. “I’m not sure I’d even know how to use it in a sentence.”
“Oh, you’re right,” I groan and try to reword the sentence more to his level of speech without losing the general fundamentals of his thought. I love words and all their varied uses and meanings. And though I want him to articulate his feelings with a lucent but weighted, theological essence, my readers will never believe a young guy with his background could come up with the words in my head. It won’t go. School is Claudia’s thing. “You might not be a wordsmith, but you’re talented in other ways.”
Feeling under pressure, I cannot focus. I rotate between writing sweet, but meaningless scenes, with checking emails from writing agents I’d queried. As of yet, I’ve received nothing but pleasant declines for my work. I must not concentrate on the negative, but on finishing the book—and making it the best story I can tell. I am determined that it be worthy of my readers' time and a worthwhile piece of literature.
Without clear intent, I click onto a few writers’ websites, reading blogs for inspiration. Tidbits of revelations begin to swirl in my head. After many months of writing, I am aware that I must sometimes leave the computer to let scenes mature into something tangible. Mindless chores let them grow. I go upstairs to get the laundry and make the bed.
Snapping the blankets over the mattress, my mind spirals through plausible scenarios until I am hit with inspiration. I must dig deeper into the plot. No matter where he goes, Toby will not find happiness in a physical location. This is a much bigger lesson than I intended. This new, profound element would rival my original intent of the story—the intense love between a young man and woman. The story will go beyond finding love with another person. It will make a definitive statement about finding, and loving, one’s true self.
I toss the last sham on the bed and, ignoring my empty stomach, hustle back to my computer. I shut down the Internet, and force myself to settle in.
“Contentment comes from conscious alignment of your actions with your desires. It isn’t something Claudia, or anyone, can give you. It comes from within,” I say to Toby, with more confidence. “Nothing is more attractive than a guy who believes in himself.”
Toby had never believed in himself. He’d always felt he’d come up short, but now, I will make him stretch and grow.
I can do this, I tell myself, and to my delight, a dramatic scene begins to flow effortlessly from my fingertips.
Toby paces before my desk listening as I tap away on the keyboard.
“This is good,” I tell him. “Claudia is going to be so impressed with the changes she sees in you.” And for the first time all day, Toby smiles.
His smile makes me smile. I am proud of him.
Two solid chapters later, the ringing house phone breaks into my thoughts. It’s the vet’s office.
“Patches is waiting to go home,” the receptionist says.
I am an hour late.
Marveling at how quickly the morning slipped by, I speed to the animal hospital. Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up,” is blasting from the car’s stereo. With the windows open, the wind blows my hair. I feel exuberant, and I sing along, at the top of my lungs. Toby won’t give up, and I won’t give up fighting for him, and for my story, either.
Toby watches as I give Patches an extra treat. Exhausted from her ordeal, she curls up in her little doggie bed and promptly drops off to sleep.
“I like dogs,” he says. “Maybe you should give me one.”
I would like to give him a dog. He is kind hearted—he would treat a pet well but I have other things planned for him.
“Not in this book,” I shake my head as he follows me back into my office. I reread my last page, and am quickly lulled back into telling the story. The words that appear on the computer screen before me are just a smidgeon of the story that fills my mind. I fear time. I fear distraction. I fear my fingers are not fast enough to get it all down before I will be pulled away from Toby’s world, back to my own.